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- Any movie viewed in the year 2013 that I haven’t seen before qualifies for the list.
- I balance artistic merit with a swinging good time.
- In order of importance I rank artistic brilliance, “re-view-ability” and only then “a swinging good time”.
- I do twelve top movies. Consider it cinema calendrics.
- I never agree with my rankings three months down the road, but this list is at least a first impression ranking.
1. To the Wonder (2013, Terrence Malick)
To the Wonder is not the visceral punch that Tree of Life was, but it shows that Malick is still at the top of his game. Click here for my review.
2. Gravity (2013, Alfonso Cuaron)
Gravity is perhaps the most perfectly constructed action film of all time. It is the climax of the genre. Click here for my thought on it.
3. Prince Avalanche (2013, David Gordon Green)
I once said “Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice and shame on Paul Rudd for making more movies.” I can happily separate this film from Rudd’s typical fair. My review is here.
4. Eternity and a Day (2003, Theo Angelopoulos)
Theo Angelopoulos, whose The Weeping Meadow is among my favorites of all time, is a master. Every image is haunting, mythical, rich and worth as many eyes as the world has got.
5. Francis Ha (2013, Noah Baumbach)
Woody Allen once said “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Francis, I am pleased to add, laughs with him.
6. Los Cronoscrimenes (2007, Nacho Vigalondo)
Timetravel movies are tricky particularly in making us care since Time is a key aspect to drama: exactly what the genre tinkers with, but Los Cronoscrimenes shifts the focus to freedom and morality. It’s a sticky and sinister film.
7. [TIE] The Bling Ring (2013, Sofia Coppola),
and The Virgin Suicides (1999, Sofia Coppola)
As a fan of Eugenides (who wrote the novel on which the movie is based) and as one who is mesmerized by whatever Coppola films, The Virgin Suicides has been on my must watch list forever. It is a testament to Coppola’s skill that I don’t hate her movies despite using protagonists that I wouldn’t care about at all.I don’t know why The Bling Ring is sticking with me. It doesn’t matter how shallow Coppola’s characters are or how far they descend into stupidity, she does magic before your very eyes.
8. Much Ado About Nothing (2012, Joss Whedon)
Whedon is always good for some fun, but his take on the Shakespeare comedy was surprisingly thoughtful. Nearly every shift from the source text was fruitful and enlightening. Some of the staging was off, as was some of the goofing, but overall a pleasing remake.
9. After Earth (2013, M. Night Shyamalan)
It’s cool to bag on M.N. Shyamalan now, but I found After Earth to be a tightly wound flick. With so many big action flicks clueless about the use of a flashback (Pacific Rim, Man of Steel) it was nice to see one tied nicely to the macrostory.
10. Attenberg (2010, Athina Rachel Tsangari)
I have a thing for Greek filmmakers. The awkward, funny, bizarre, heartfelt and soulcrushing Attenberg by Tsangari (producer of the grotesque, terrifying, hilarious, sad Dogtooth)
11. World War Z
A competent popcorn flick.
• Shoot in available natural light
• Do not underexpose the negative Keep true blacks
• Preserve the latitude in the image
• Seek maximum resolution and fine grain
• Seek depth with deep focus and stop: “Compose in depth”
• Shoot in backlight for continuity and depth
• Use negative fill to avoid “light sandwiches” (even sources on both sides)
• Shoot in crosslight only after dawn or before dusk; never front light
• Avoid lens flares
• Avoid white and primary colors in frame
• Shoot with short-focal-length, hard lenses
• No filters except Polarizer
• Shoot with steady handheld or Steadicam “in the eye of the hurricane”
• Z-axis moves instead of pans or tilts
• No zooming
• Do some static tripod shots “in midst of our haste”
• Accept the exception to the dogma (“Article E”)
David Gordon Green, with his debut feature George Washington ensconced in the Criterion Collection, seemed poised to be the next great American filmmaker. His second feature, All the Real Girls, built on that promise, launching careers and further superlatives, and his third, Undertow, was produced by his hero and reigning American auteur Terrence Malick. His career as the next serious filmmaker seemed set until a string of studio pot-smokin comedies, Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter, befuddled those following his career. In Prince Avalanche he has returned to his indie roots, eschewing the loud zaniness of the likes of Seth Rogan, James Franco and Jonah Hill for the more subdued antics of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Prince Avalanche, based on the Icelandic film Either Way by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson, is set in central Texas in the summer of 1988 after a forest fire requires the repainting of traffic lanes along interminable and winding country roads. Alvin, played by Paul Rudd, has taken the dull task with aplomb, filling the hours with German language tapes and reflections of solitude. His partner, and potential brother-in-law, Lance (Hirsch) is far less enthused at being away from the city and its “fresh” parties and increasingly becomes an irritant to his sister’s boyfriend.
The movie is shot by Green’s collaborator Tim Orr whose eye is constantly being drawn away by rabbit trails: shots of charred forest, blossoms and bugs. This habit gives such a focused and simple story a wider scope, a beckoning to the grander scale. Hinting at a renewal of life all along the margins despite destruction.
The tale, ostensibly, is a coming-of-middle-age story, wherein the two characters grapple with love.; Lance, in his flighty post-teen adulthood, is keen on the physical act. At the beginning he complains how horny he is in nature. He questions his own ability to go the entire summer without having his “little man squeezed” whereas the slightly older Alvin is stoic in his abstinence. He is happy to spend his free time reflecting on himself, planning the future and “doing right” by those he loves. He diligently sends home money in the letters he writes to his girlfriend, supporting her and the child she’s had by another man.
The fire at the beginning injects a sense of loss that is carried throughout the film. Love, we know from ancient sources, is fire; whether destructive or constructive, whether cleansing or clearing, love sets us aflame. That the loss in fire signals the loss in love is depicted in a scene in which Alvin reenacts a homecoming on a burnt out foundation.
The ground is covered in ash, drywall, warped plastic and glass. Alvin looks dismayed. He ascends the stairs and opens an imaginary door. He calls for the wife, the quotidian comments: Honey? Sweetie? where are you? smells good in here… He opens the oven, he fiddles with charred knick-knacks, he jogs up imaginary stairs. As he does this there is a tension that grows. What started out as a cute bit of pantomime becomes ominous. At the beginning there was no house, his play began and a house leapt to life, but the wife was gone: had she left? was the marriage over?
He finds her upstairs, in the bedroom on the phone. He apologizes for interrupting her, tells her not to hang up and trots back downstairs. There is a relief, he’s found her, she wasn’t gone, she cannot speak to him, but she’s there. He finds a surviving chair and sits, the pater familias at rest, his domain secure, while sitting there he says, “That was nice.” And the home life so recently created comes down again.
Complimenting this is a quiet ghost story. Whether any real ghosts appear is debatable, but a woman moves through the film, a figure of loss, both seen and unseen, embodying love. The unseen love interests of Lance and Alvin also operate as ghosts. They are spoken of, but not seen. Early on Alvin concludes a letter to his girlfriend with: “True love is just like a ghost, people talk about it but very few have actually seen it.” Alvin talks about love plenty, whether he has seen it is debatable.
Paul Rudd throws himself into the serious work of stifling his own laughter in his role as the taciturn Alvin. Emile Hirsch, best known for his role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, is earnest and convincingly numbskulled. Their easy mirth as they interact goes a long way in driving the narrative forward, built upon the steady rhythms of the score from Explosions in the Sky, neighbors of David Gordon Green and fellow Texans.
The curious title, while haphazardly chosen by Green, draws together the Dionysian challenge of Apollonian order that Alvin and Lance embody. Alvin delights in the strict duty of lines and the manly outdoor activities, while Lance prefers wild parties and the presence of ladies. Like the threat of riot to rule and the cliff of hubris over humility, the prince of lines must be careful or else be buried under the hotmess of human conflict.
While the crisis is never resolved and catharsis comes through drunken revelry, the call of “doing right” has been sounded, and the movie ends with Alvin and Lance in high spirits and renewed vigor. Like the slow recovery from the fire, the lesson seems, that life recovers perhaps with scars, perhaps with regret, perhaps haunted with ghosts.
“Camera placement is determined by narrative significance.”
Camera angle refers to the angle at which a camera is positioned when filming. High-angle shots look down on a subject. Low-angle shots aim up at a subject to make the subject appear big and dominant in the screen. Wide shots are used to capture a subject’s surroundings and often are used when establishing a scene. The various angles are chosen to help explore a film’s narrative development.
“Good continuity encourages the viewer to become absorbed in the story-telling, without bothersome distractions. The prime purpose of a motion picture, whether theatrical fiction feature or documentary fact film, is to capture and hold audience attention – from opening shot to final fade-out.”
Continuity is the consistency of a film’s static and dynamic elements. A film must flow naturally to make sense to a viewer and shots are recorded avoiding inconsistencies in characters, plot or subject matter. Continuity means that clothing, sets and objects are not suddenly altered between shots in the same scene. It also means that characters sustain consistent personalities and that objects do not suddenly change, appear or disappear.
“Always move players into and out of close-ups to allow cutting on action. It is possible to cut away to anything happening anywhere at any time. Each shot should make a point. All scenes should be linked together so that their combined effect, rather than their individual contents, produces the desired audience reactions.”
Cutting is how shots are organized in sequence. It’s important to create a series of shots that flow naturally into each other. This means viewers are unlikely to follow or be affected by a film when its shots do not follow naturally. One example of a cutting technique is cross-cutting. This is when a camera moves from one scene of action to another to show two events taking place simultaneously. Cutting on action is another technique where one shot finishes on an action that leads to the next shot.
Closeups are detailed shots of a subject. Small details in these shots appear large on a movie screen. There are different degrees of closeups, including medium closeups and extreme closeups. Over-the-shoulder shots are a type literally filmed over a subject’s shoulder toward another subject, usually done during a conversation. Closeups also move away from the action of a shot to show intimate details of a subject’s emotions or draw attention to specific objects.
“Good composition is arrangement of pictorial elements to form a unified harmonious whole.”
Composition refers to how images in a shot are arranged and organized. In other words, composition is the visual order of a shot. This includes how a shot is balanced, or arranged in the frame, to draw viewers’ attention to particular subjects or objects. The space, colors, balance of light and dark and other visual elements are other important aspects of a shot’s composition.
In a world where simple stories are needlessly bejazzled and crampacked with gibber it is refreshing to watch a movie that exults in its simplicity. Here is a movie titled Gravity about an astronaut in space named Stone. The narrative is as easy as falling down.
There have been numerous digs at some of the infelicitous dialogue and the scientific inaccuracies (all granted and most excused by all but the most severe pedants), but there is one questionable element that hasn’t been given the notice it deserves. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson took issue with Stone, a biomedical engineer, servicing the Hubble, but this is not an inert detail. She is there to equip the Hubble to search for a habitable planet. The movie begins with her suspended between worlds, for as we were told at the beginning: “Life in space is impossible”. She is searching for new life for the old world holds nothing for her.
The reason why life is no longer possible for her on earth is given when she tells Kowalski that she lost her daughter to a fall. Something “as stupid as that” she says. Far from being a throwaway detail or a maudlin grab for sympathy, her daughter’s death is mentioned to show that there is nothing on earth for her. Since that time she has been on the move, driving, just driving; between destinations.
A line is drawn between Kowalski and Stone when he mentions that he had a wife, who was lost to him while he was on a mission. Through death and adultery they have been rendered alone yet their perspective of earth (pardon the expression) is different.
In the beginning of the film, having fled earth, she still roils (a detail established in the fifteen minute virtuosic opening shot); green not just to inexperience but also motionsick. Her world spins. This is true well before the shrapnel sends her spinning into the black. For well over half the film she is tugged, pushed, thrown, spun and threatened with motion without rest.
Ryan Stone (played by a pitch-perfect Sandra Bullock):
- Ryan = “Little King”
- Also Ryan Stone is a pun on rhinestone, an imitation stone.
Matthew Kowalski (played by the jocose George Clooney):
- Matthew (“Gift of God”, ala Theo from Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men).
- Kowalski = of the Blacksmith
The name on the Russian suit that Stone dons (see above) is Demidov (it bears the number 42, the answer to life: a hat tip to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). This surname comes from a prominent family of blacksmiths (Demid Antufiev, was a free blacksmith from Tula). Demidov means “of Demid”; Demid means “cunning as Zeus” and is derived from Diomedes = “Godlike”.
Aningaaq, the voice on the ham radio, is the name of the moon in Nordic mythology and means “Big Brother of a Girl”. The short film of the same title, directed by Jonás Cuarón (son of Alfonso and co-writer of Gravity), can be found here.
What better name for an astronaut than blacksmith? Matthew is the cool thinking mentor that navigates Stone through the perilous events. To survive she must become like him. His character is centered on earth, constantly falling back on stories of life on earth. His other passion is to beat the record for the longest spacewalk, an ironic phrase considering there is not one single step made in the entire movie.
To survive Stone must become like him, focused on earth.
Set in the future:
Kessler Syndrome is a potential future event in which the density of objects in low orbit become so great that a cascading series of collisions render space exploration infeasible for several generations.
Ryan refers to her mission as STS-157 in one of her transmissions. In real life, the 135th and final Space Shuttle mission was STS-135. It launched on 8 July 2011. Taking the average of manned spaceflights from the 60s to today of 28 flights every decade then mission 157 would hit some time after 2021.
The real-life Chinese Space station is named Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) and currently it consists of only one small inhabitable module. The goal of the Tiangong program is the construction of a space station much like the one in the film by the year 2022.
In Cuarón’s 2006 film The Children of Men (based on the novel of the same name by P.D. James) earth, in the year 2027, has been struck by infertility for two decades. Society is beginning to collapse.
According to the legendary account of his life Christopher was a Canaanite 7.5 feet tall. While serving the king of Canaan, he took it into his head to go and serve “the greatest king there was”. He went to the king who was reputed to be the greatest, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, he departed to look for the devil. He came across a band of marauders, one of whom declared himself to be the devil, so Christopher decided to serve him. But when he saw his new master avoid a wayside cross and found out that the devil feared Christ, he left him and inquired from people where to find Christ. He met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked him how he could serve Christ. When the hermit suggested fasting and prayer, Christopher replied that he was unable to perform that service. The hermit then suggested that because of his size and strength Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where they were perishing in the attempt. The hermit promised that this service would be pleasing to Christ.
After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked him to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” The child then vanished.
The icon of St. Christopher is on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
When Ryan Stone turns back to earth she is embracing life in a place that, for her, has no life. She is therefore embracing the hope for new life. The world is dead to her, but harkening to the voice of the faithful blacksmith she becomes not a fake rhinestone, but a true rock, with faith that she will be fashioned into a jewel. Crawling out of the water she mutters a terse “thank you”. She is reborn, passing through the human stages of conception, through the travail of birth (despite the abortive efforts of space), in order to emerge from the amnion to stand much more than homo erectus, but as homo spes, hopeful man.
Cover by Katherine Uemura
It begins at the Wonder, La Merveille, Mont-Saint-Michel in France to be exact, with Neil and Marina at an early edge of love, leap or let go is the question. She cavorts along the coast as the tide swells and he, as implacable as the sea, follows; whether entranced or temporarily entrapped in her orbit we hardly know. They leave the Wonder, and Marina, with her daughter from a former husband, travels to America, to the heartland to see if their love grows.
The culture has failed Terrence Malick. All of his films, but particularly Tree of Life and To the Wonder, are cut from the cloth of Christendom, both its scripture and traditions. There’s a liturgy to his films; cinematography as psalm, narration as prayer, and critics can sense the richness, but rarely can they taste it unless those same rhythms are their own. The trouble is that where Tree of Life strained the secular imagination, To the Wonder tramples and twirls upon its grave.
Apart from the vocabulary and iconography of Christianity, To the Wonder can only be pretentious, vapid and a portentous self-parody. To an outsider the connection between a husband and wife and a priest and his parish might seem tenuous and arbitrary, but to the believer it is Christ and his body, the second Adam and his Eve.
Equally important -and more so in the lexicon of Malick- is the meaning of water: baptismal, cleansing, spiritual and faith. In The Tree of Life, an account of a crisis of faith in the vein of Job, there is a complete cessation of water throughout the film to imitate the wasteland of apostasy; from the creational waters that covered the face of the earth, to the river and yardplay, to the inner desert realm at the end and its thin ebb of sea. A lack of water, for Malick, is a lack of faith.
In To the Wonder there is Marina, whose name means of the sea, who walks on water and twirls on tide, who accompanies Neil to Oklahoma. Neil follows Marina throughout the movie, trailing behind as if studying her. He seems to be some water and soil expert, an earthly Adam to her watery Eve. His name evokes the central call of the film, kneel, but he is the idealized modern American man, scientific, noncommittal, sexually boundless and charming.
The opening lines, spoken by Marina in the hushed tone favored by Malick, are a riff on Job (his opening speech and Eliphaz’s “born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward”comment): “Newborn. I open my eyes. I melt. Into the eternal night. A spark. You got me out of the darkness.” And then Genesis is stirred in: “We are one. Two, one.”
The dissolution of their love is paired with the struggle of Father Quintana, who has lost sight of God, blinded by the wealth of his church and the poverty of the slums he surrounds himself with. He preaches love to a sparse congregation and tries to show it to the poor, who are as deaf and disregarding as his congregants. Malick implicates American Christianity in a number of place; one is a well dressed man’s talk about expanding the facilities for weddings and social events, but Quintana walks the mission field alone. Jesus tells the righteous that they fed him and clothed him and cared for him in sickness when they did those things to the least of his people, but Quintana feds no one, clothes no one, and therefore struggles.
The film climaxes with his recitation of St. Patrick’s Lorica, which for him is a prayer and for the viewer becomes a sort of benediction: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in the heart. . . . Thirsting. . . . We thirst. . . . Flood our souls with your spirit and life . . . so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you.” This is another thread that ties the two stories together since Marina tells Neil that she plans on keeping his name after their divorce, binding herself to his name they way Quintana prays to be bound to the name of the holy Trinity.
Neil is depicted -in a deft bit of framing- as the prodigal son. Marina is by the window, cutting pictures from an artbook; in her hand is Rembrandt’s “A Woman Bathing in the Stream” and Neil falls to his knees, laying his head on her lap. This is a sly reference to Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son and a tip of the hat to Malick’s cinematic father, Andrei Tarkovsky, who did the same thing in Solyaris.
Neil’s prodigality is in his wasting of marriage. Marina, already abandoned by one husband, loses her daughter too, who goes to live with her father (we see her watching an old video call, something you don’t do if you’re in constant contact). Marina surrounds herself with children, but we find out that Neil doesn’t want children when she ends up at the hospital over complications with her IUD (an x-ray showing the device like a crucifix in her uterus). Her relief over not having to have a hysterectomy and the shallow glances between them tell the story of their eventual division.
Incidentally, while most reviewers assert that the tale is straight forward there is some dischronology. It is when they go to the hospital that Neil reconnects with his old friend Jane. The way the movie is constructed, it looks as though Marina and her daughter move to Oklahoma, they have a fight, she returns to Paris, Neil takes up with Jane, Neil and Jane break up, her daughter stays behind when Marina returns, they get married, there’s the complication over birthcontrol and they divorce with Marina saying, “I want to keep your name.” But the actual timeline is she follows Neil to America, at some point Marina takes her daughter back to Paris, returns and marries Neil (first in a legal marriage to get her citizenship, and then in Father Quintana’s church). At this point there is the health issue (when Neil meets Jane), Marina divorces Neil, who then takes up with Jane in another dead-end relationship. This is confirmed by Malick’s own biography, on which the story is based.
By structuring it the way, Malick is highlighting Neil’s inactivity, his lack of direction. Father Quintana states the theme in a sermon: “We fear to choose. Jesus insists on choice. The one thing he condemns utterly is avoiding the choice. To choose is to commit yourself, and to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those.” Father Quintana is contrasted with Neil. Neil does not see and therefore does not believe. Father Quintana does not see and labors onward. But by inserting the Jane episode and bookending it with Marina, who is so closely connected to the Wonder, perhaps too Malick is hinting at future peace and reunion. The movie concludes with shots of Marina, as though she is being pursued, and finally by the staples of Malick: stairs climbing into the sky, a concrete urn in supplication, the sun shining through an open gate. This is about as clear as he can get in saying the story goes forward, calling the viewer to continue the chase.
In To the Wonder, Terrence Malick has left behind even the tenuous grasp of the standard narrative of cinema that he held in his previous films, abandoning the accepted character requirements of motive and splayed out desires, and instead has opted for the themes of Scripture sketched out over the issues facing the American church.
It is important to note that the characters are unnamed in the movie; they are icons of man and woman and comparing the two is perhaps Malick’s most biting commentary. Neil, described by Ben Affleck as the film’s “silent center”, is a cypher for the callow modern man. And though the critics take the twirling of Marina to task and are bewildered over the awe and lack of story arc, it is foremost the failure of the culture. To the Wonder isn’t perfect, not even Malick can resist the supple flesh of his actresses; the leap from Sonic, the fast food restaurant, to the Divine musings cannot help but be bathetic in a way that no other director alive could manage; and it really cannot be overstated how much twirling there is in the film, but regardless of the missteps and how great they are it is always the case that those who hear not the music, think the dancers mad.
“There is love that is like a stream that goes dry . . . but there is love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love, and has its source above. The husband is to love the wife as Christ loved the church, and gives his life for her.” -Father Quintana